The thing I love the most about hiking is that it requires little more than the ability to pinpoint a good trail, lace up some sturdy shoes and you are off on an adventure. There is little to no equipment to purchase or haul, unless you like a good walking stick. The other great thing about hiking is that you can tailor it to any level of ability by your trail choice and by adjusting your pace. From nature strolls meant to soak in the beauty and aroma of the outdoors, to a rugged, tree-root gnarled, hilly trail-run, you can be challenged in mind and body for one mile, 27 miles, or anywhere in between.
I live in the northern part of the St. Croix River Valley, and it is arguably one of the best places to discover fantastic hikes in the central MN and Western WI area. I’m always surprised when I hear locals who have never even explored the trails, or tourists who have made the trek to the area (along with 250,000 other documented annual visitors) but have never made it past the “Pothole Trails” within the MN and WI Interstate parks. I chose 2 trails in the northern part of the St. Croix River Valley that are part of this area's premiere trail selections. And because there is something about the satisfaction of reaching a beautiful vista, I’ve included trails that venture along the St. Croix River and provide fantastic scenery and with the opportunity for brilliant photos.
Rail Road Trail/ Curtain Falls Loop/River Trail
Location and Trailhead: Taylors Falls, MN. There are 3 main trailheads for this hike, two within the state park property (as this trail is part of the MN Interstate Trail System) and one in-town trailhead with parking behind the historic depot-themed community center. This is the perfect trail if you came to see the famous Potholes and want to add on to your adventure!
Length: Approximately 3.1 mile loop.
Terrain and Ease of Use: Three quarters of a mile of flat surface. The rest is rock and man-made stairs, and includes gradual ascents and descents as well steep hills. This is an intermediate trail not conducive for strollers.
Summary: At the community center, this trail starts flat for approximately .75 miles and follows an old railroad bed. It becomes challenging as it ascends higher and deeper into the bluffs. It covers rocky, root covered ground and climbs a steep hillside that wraps around a ravine. At the top, a stunning south view of the St. Croix River awaits to the south. This trail winds itself right along the colorfully striated, sandy walls of the bluff and passes through a tunnel (under Hwy 8). Here it intersects with the “River Trail” which curves along the basalt cliffs of the eastern shore of the St. Croix River. Many views of the river abound on this side, whether glimpses through the trees, or the jutting overlooks that rest on the cliff sides. If you listen close, you can sometimes hear the paddle boat operator echoing within the river canyon, telling the stories of the history in the area. Take the marked trails under the Hwy 8 bridge through town to lead you back to your start point behind the community center.
What to look for: Turkey vultures flying over the river, a rain induced waterfall (Curtain Falls) in the bluff area, amazing vistas of the St. Croix River, cacti along the River Trail. “potholes” near the interpretive center.
Trails Adjacent to the area to explore: Head across the river to the sister park of the WI Interstate system, which has 9 more miles of trails to hike. Look for the view of the river that was featured in the movie the “The Mighty Ducks”, filmed right in the St. Croix River Valley area in 1993!
Indianhead Trail and Mindy Creek Segment of the Ice Age Trail
Location and Trailhead: St. Croix Falls, WI on Day Road. Trailhead is to your left tucked along the walking bridge, and parking is to the right as you drive to the end of the residential area on Day Road (Look for the Zillmer Park Sign.) Another trailhead option: park at Lions Park just north of St Croix Falls on Hwy 87. This parking spot separates the Indianhead trail from the Mindy Creek Segment for those who would like to try only a portion of this hike.
Length: Approximately 5.5 miles out and back.
Terrain and Ease of Use: Indianhead Trail is mostly a flat, dirt packed trail with some small tree roots, walking bridges and gradual hills. Mindy Creek trail is a hard, dirt-packed trail with steep ups and downs winding through a creek bed that leads down to the St. Croix River.
Summary: This trail starts with a gradual switchback leading down a ravine, crossing the boulder strewn creek bed, and leading up a steep incline out of the valley. It winds through a Northern Mesic Forest and opens up to a prairie meadow clearing with bedrock outcroppings that provide a great overlook to the St. Croix River Valley. From there it winds through the woods again and follows an old logging road until it reaches Hwy 87. The trail crosses the road and intersects with the Indianhead trail, which picks up north of the Lions Park parking lot. Here you follow the forest trail inward and eventually parallel the serene and sandy western shore of the St. Croix River. This journey provides a much different viewpoint from the rocky cliffs just 3 miles south. This is an out and back trail, versus a loop, so when you hit private property near the River Road, it’s time to turn around and enjoy all the points you may have missed on the way in.
What to look for: Most notably, the Mindy Creek Segment marks the eastern start point of the Ice Age Trail System, which spans 1,200 miles west across the state of Wisconsin and tells the story of the glacial movement and amazing geological history of this area. Look for the next leg of the Ice Age trail called the Zillmer Trail located to the right of the parking area on Day road. For more information on the Ice Age Trail system, visit www.iceagetrail.org.
Trails Adjacent to the area to explore: Directly north of the trail is the brand new Wert Preserve. In fact, you will see the signage for the preserve as you reach the end of the Mindy Creek Segment near Hwy 87. There are over 6 miles of trails that are being developed for hiking, running, XC skiing, snowshoeing, and mountain biking.
Although I’ve chosen two routes to highlight here, this is an area with miles of trail not just for hiking, but for many other sport uses as well. Check out the OUTDOOR ADVENTURE section of this website to explore more ways to use our area trails!
By Linda Shober, tourist turned transplant to the area. Trail hiking junkie. 2x finisher of a 27 mile trail run/hike. Promoter of all things St. Croix Valley.
Photo credit © MN DNR